Kindergartening Kai: Race (by Dr Susan Ballinger)

“Oh, this is definitely racism!” yells Kai from downstairs. Upstairs, his father and I exchange raised eyebrows. Kai has turned on the TV to watch Netflix, but it goes to CNN first, and Kai is watching a black family talk about their relative[1] who has just been shot in the back twice by a police officer as he ran away. They are shaking and tears are streaming down their faces, and Kai asks, “What happened?!” In the midst of the George Floyd murder and subsequent protests, it hasn’t been long since we had our latest discussion on racism. At a recent breakfast, it came up, and I tackled it, explained the history of slavery, the misery that it caused for African Americans, the lifestyle that it offered white Americans. I sketched out the Civil War, and I answered all his questions. He seemed to understand all of it. Good work, me! Job well done!

Have I mentioned that my son is asking a lot of questions these days? That conversation was not done. Every once in a while, Kai stares at me, thinking hard, and then he asks me another question about race and racism. I’ve been writing them down. Here are a few:

“Why don’t we say ‘brown people’?”

“How do we stop racism? Do we have to start a war to stop racism?”

“Which do you hate more, corona virus or racism?”

Can you see somebody doing racism, or does he only do it in his mind?”

“Is Daddy Asian?” [Phew, easy one!] “What is Asian?” [Uhhh…]

“Can only white people be racist or can a black person be racist to black people?”

 “But why isn’t [Kai’s white friend at school] racist to [Kai’s black friend at school]?”

I do all right with most of these, change the subject at least once, get a bit freaked out when he asks the question about his black friend at school, worrying that because of our previous conversation, he will see that friend as a category and not an individual. But mostly it’s OK.

He never asks any questions about himself. If and when he does, his father and I need to be prepared, and we’re not. Neither of us have grown up brown or black in North America. I’ve witnessed loads of racism, but it wasn’t directed against me. Kai has a white and an Asian parent. It is interesting to see how he is perceived by strangers. I have been asked if he is Hispanic, and an Indigenous woman at a grocery store once asked if his father was Inuit. When he was a baby, I overheard one of my older daughter’s friends announcing, “Bella’s little brother is brown!”

It is also interesting to see how we are perceived as a family. My two older kids and I are white, my partner and youngest kid are brown. If I saw us all out together, I would observe us and try to figure out our story. So, I don’t mind that we attract curiosity. And I can understand why, no matter how close I stand to my partner in a checkout line, cashiers often try to ring up our items separately. Very occasionally, we also run across some openly cold stares in public, particularly when my Asian partner walks alone with my white teenaged daughter. But, uncomfortable though that may be, we also think it is kind of funny. And nice white ladies sometimes spontaneously tell me that I have a beautiful family. I tend to agree.

But one of these days, if he hasn’t already, Kai is going to connect some dots and ask himself or his parents whether people are ‘doing racism in their heads’ towards him. I feel comfortable about raising a kid who knows where racism comes from, what it looks like, that it’s wrong, or what to do if they see someone else being racist. But I’m still trying to figure out how to teach my kindergartner what to do if someone treats him differently, calls him a name, assumes something about him, is cruel or aggressive towards him, or denies him an opportunity based on his appearance. Can any education prepare him for that?

[1] His name was Rayshard Brooks. I hope you remember that name at the time of reading this. Maybe that will mean that he was the last black man ever shot by the police.

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